Dead Wildlife In Gulf Oil Disaster Preserved For Criminal Evidence
June 12, 2010: Katy Reckdahl / The Times -Picayune via Nola.com – June 11, 2010
Within each of the animal-rescue stations set up along the Gulf Coast is a makeshift morgue for oiled and ill creatures that didn’t make it. And behind the scenes, pathologists and laboratory staff are carefully cataloging each dead creature as part of larger criminal, civil and scientific inquiries into how the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has affected animals and their habitats.
Hundreds of birds including pelicans, seagulls, terns and gannets are being gathered by wildlife teams in an effort both to save them from their veils of oil and to help them recover from the effects that it can have on their lungs and digestive systems. At the same time, government scientists and the seasoned nonprofits that the government usually hires to respond to major wildlife disasters have set up animal rescue centers along the coast.
Within those operations are morgues and temporary freezers where the dead animals are catalogued and examined. The operations cannot be photographed or observed by outsiders, because they are part of a massive body of evidence outlining the harm that the spill has caused wildlife, in violation of federal laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.
So far, about 1,000 dead animals – birds, turtles and dolphins — have been reported and they are being kept at undisclosed locations. “They go to various intermediate storage locations before they are shipped to a central facility for archiving,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Doug Zimmer, who did not name any of the locations.
“It is not so much the number of dead creatures as how they died that matters to the government, although obviously the more the harm, the higher the possible penalty,” said University of Michigan Law School professor David Uhlmann, who worked for seven years as chief of the environmental crimes section at the federal Department of Justice. Uhlmann said the government likely will bring charges under the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, both of which were used after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
Billions are at stake. In the Valdez case, Exxon agreed to pay $100 million as criminal restitution for the injuries caused to the fish, wildlife and lands of the spill region, which was divided evenly between the federal and state governments, according to the website for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which was formed to oversee natural-resource restoration. But Exxon’s largest payment came from its civil settlement, in which the oil company agreed to pay $900 million over 10 years to pay for restoration of natural resources injured by the spill.
In recent days, as the oil has reached the shore, crews are finding increasing numbers of shorebirds and are bringing about 30 birds a day to the newly created bird-rescue facility in Buras. The Fort Jackson station in particular has been overwhelmed by live birds, more than 470 of them so far, while other Gulf Coast facilities have collected only about 30 live birds total and roughly 400 more dead birds since the massive spill began on April 20. As a result, most scientists and trained bird handlers at the Fort Jackson facility have been absorbed with stabilizing, cleaning and monitoring the oiled birds while they recover, said Roger Helm, chief of environmental quality for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A handful of the 254 dead birds found in the Louisiana area appeared diseased or otherwise “peculiar” and were immediately given an animal autopsy, called a necropsy, to determine cause of death. That’s because any contagious disease could spread quickly between such a large number of captive birds, said Helm, who described the necropsies as “a very small number.”
But that doesn’t mean that bird carcasses are discarded. All birds that died during the cleaning process and birds found dead by shoreline crews are tagged with identifying information and recorded. Most are then frozen or archived according to strict legal and scientific protocols. At a later date, the birds could be examined more closely for the government’s criminal investigation against BP. But for the time being, the rescue facility has put most of its resources behind live birds.
The picture is bleaker for dolphins and turtles. The Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans has been working with a few dozen oiled turtles that were captured alive and two oiled dolphins recently caught alive in Florida. But most recovered sea turtles and dolphins have been dead, “and anybody who shows up dead will get a necropsy,” said response-team member Mike Walsh, a former Sea World head veterinarian who now works as associate director of the Aquatic Animal Health Program at the University of Florida.
A necropsy is a standard procedure, done to determine cause of death, and Audubon is part of an already-established network of organizations that nurse sick marine animals back to health or conduct necropsies, said Robert MacLean, Audubon’s senior veterinarian. “Sea turtles die every year,” he said, and it’s well-known because of years of necropsies that many commonly die after being caught in a fishing net or hit by a boat.
Since people have been scouring the coastline for turtles, it’s hard to say definitively that the numbers of dead turtles are higher than usual this year, MacLean said.
Still, the oil spill is having some effect. “We’re seeing turtles covered with sticky brown oil and it’s in their esophagus, so they’ve definitely ingested it,” he said. With turtle necropsies, like other necropsies, pathologists are careful to follow the established procedure, to try to rule out any other causes of death, Walsh said. “We follow the same protocol whether oiled or not,” he said. A necropsy starts with the outside of the animal: the body, skin, hard surfaces, eyes and feathers, if a bird. Pictures are taken of the top, bottom, front and back and with oil-affected animals, photos may be taken before the oil is removed and after, he said.
Then the pathologist opens the animal’s mouth to check for oil. For turtles, he takes off the bottom part of the shell and removes the shoulders and arms, giving him access to the organs. And then he will remove samples of certain organs to test for toxins and other substances. And if the animal was alive when first brought in, bird handlers have typically drawn blood to test for certain key indicators. Those samples will be sent to a certified lab for testing.
When all that’s completed, most animals are put into carefully labeled containers and frozen. “Just like you might see on CSI, the chain of custody is very important,” Walsh said. Everyone who handled the creature or tested it must log that on the paperwork. Scientists do this with every necropsy, as part of standard scientific procedure, he said. The process “may or may not require” that every recovered animal be frozen, said Zimmer. “But every bird is documented.”
A University of Florida colleague of Walsh’s is conducting the turtle necropsies for the spill response while Walsh is involved mostly with dolphins and manatees, he said. Crews along the Gulf have been tracking dolphins, manatees and sea turtles to see how the oil is affecting live animals’ behavior, he said. They will necropsy all of the 37 dead dolphins that have been found along the Gulf.
For scientists like Walsh, monitoring the effects of oil on live and dead creatures also informs their future decisions about what to do with the animals living and eating within the spill’s sheen. “Realistically, you can’t just pick them up and move them, because they’ll come back to the same area,’ he said. “So we need to first watch, monitor, understand and diagnose.”
Under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with determining the natural resources injured by hazardous substances and creating a plan that will restore the damage at no cost to taxpayers. The carcasses of more than 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters were found at the Exxon Valdez site, according to its Trustee Council website, which estimated that the actual toll was “250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.”
Scientists like Helm, who’s worked to assess oil spills for 20 years, will be creating estimates like that from their data. But the count of captive and catalogued birds at Fort Jackson is only one indicator of the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon spill, he said. “The birds in hand only indicate how many birds are in hand,” Helm said.
The Tonka Report Editor’s Note: How these monsters at BP and the US government could unleash this hell on earth is absolutely unfathomable and constitutes one of the most heinous crimes ever committed in the history of mankind! – SJH
Link to original article below…
Written by Steven John Hibbs
June 12, 2010 at 2:52 am
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